A Whale is not a Fish

BiblioFlash: From the New Books Cart

Trying Leviathan: The Nineteenth-century New York Court Case that Put the Whale on Trial and Challenged the Order of Nature,
by D. Graham Burnett.

“In Trying Leviathan, D. Graham Burnett recovers the strange story of Maurice v. Judd, an 1818 trial that pitted the new sciences of taxonomy against the then-popular–and biblically sanctioned–view that the whale was a fish. The immediate dispute was mundane: whether whale oil was fish oil and therefore subject to state inspection. But the trial fueled a sensational public debate in which nothing less than the order of nature–and how we know it–was at stake. Burnett vividly re-creates the trial, during which a parade of experts–pea-coated whalemen, pompous philosophers, Jacobin lawyers–took the witness stand, brandishing books, drawings, and anatomical reports, and telling tall tales from whaling voyages. Falling in the middle of the century between Linnaeus and Darwin, the trial dramatized a revolutionary period that saw radical transformations in the understanding of the natural world.” — from the book jacket

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